Conscience (chr.)

 Citation link: Conscience (chr.)  

a) Conscience (Turk. Vicdan)

A person’s conscience is that authority that enables him or her to distinguish between good and evil and commands performance of good and refraining from evil. It is that inner voice that says: “do this, avoid that!” This specifically moral meaning of the term ‘conscience’ appears for the first time in the 1st century BCE, in the age of later Stoicism. Prior to that time, the term was just as rare in classical Greek antiquity as it was in the Hebrew-speaking context of the Bible. The phenomenon of the conscience is familiar to the Old Testament. The term frequently used there, however, is the notion of the heart (Ps 16.7; Jer 31.33). The conscience does not become a central theological-ethical category until the encounter with Christianity. The Apostle Paul paved the way for this development. For Paul, to begin with, the conscience is a neutral tribunal in a person that monitors the compatibility of one’s actions with the demands of the moral laws known through reason and written in the individual’s heart. This authority that certifies the truthfulness of action is distinguishable from moral reason and from the knowledge of faith. It can bring charges as well as grant acquittals (Rom 2:14 f.). From a theological standpoint, for Paul, at the same time, the conscience serves as God’s representative before humankind, awarding that final identity that we humans cannot derive on our own (1 Cor 4:4). In this sense, a few centuries later, Augustine (354–430) also refers to the conscience as God’s voice in us, as the locus in which the individual is directly called to account for his or her actions before God. The dignity of conscience and the right to freedom of conscience are direct consequences of the specific character of this judgment of conscience, understood as a call to the decision of salvation. No one may compel an individual to act in contravention to his or her conscience. To do so is to dispute God’s absolute claim to humankind. Still, subjective commitment to conscience is predicated upon objective formation of conscience. After all, the conscience is by no means infallible where the significance it assigns to certain actions is concerned. Accordingly, the following principle applies: Only an individual who makes a constant effort to ensure proper orientation of his or her conscience, and who carefully seeks the true and the good, can claim respect for the judgments of his or her conscience, even if, objectively speaking, the individual happens to be mistaken.

Hans-Günter Gruber

b) Decision of Conscience (Turk. Vicdan Kararı)

Decisions of conscience are necessary whenever people need to know whether they may or may not do what is asked of them or what they desire in specific situations. Situations such as this can arise in a career setting or in our own personal lives. For instance, researchers in the armaments industry or genetics might see themselves confronted with situations in which they ask themselves whether they may continue to pursue their research, or whether they must refuse to do so for reasons of conscience. In personal lives, such a situation might take the form of the question of permissibility of methods of contraception such as the so-called ‘pill’. In situations such as these, each of us must either decide for him- or herself or contact a Church authority to request information. In both cases, it is clear that the Bible does not have a direct answer ready. Consequently, whoever answers must combine general principles of Christian precepts with considerations relating to the case at hand in such a way as to permit a concrete answer. Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that others in similar circumstances might decide differently. By the same token, each one of us answers to his or her own conscience when accepting a decision by a third party (e.g. the teaching authority of the Church) and cannot evade all responsibility through reference to the authority in question. All of this goes to show that whenever a specific decision is involved, a certain freedom of decision remains, and there is no absolute certainty for the correctness of the decision involved. Whatever the decision, it is the result of rational and, to some extent, emotional discretionary choices in connection with general principles of action that require specification for the particular case to which they are applied. Thus, a considerable amount of one’s own judgment is required, judgment no religious tradition can get around, whether based upon an appeal to authority or upon one’s own conscience.

Peter Antes

Related entries

This post is also available in German.